Getting Your Sales Force to Track Thought Leadership ROI

For years, we have urged chief marketing officers who have embraced thought leadership marketing to make a strong financial case for it – to measure the return on investment. My colleague Tim Parker recently blogged on this topic. Yet I sense too few marketers actually measure thought leadership marketing’s role in generating business leads that turn into revenue. Some marketing chiefs feel they shouldn’t be judged on lead generation, only on increasing market awareness and improving a firm’s image. What’s more, I’ve heard some complain, the sales force doesn’t share information on what prompts clients to ask for a sales call.

But those days soon may be coming to a close. The reason: More and more B2B companies realize their salespeople need be seen as thought leaders to get prospects to buy. That’s what research firms such as the Corporate Executive Board (CEB) have found. That, in turn, opens the door wide for marketers to help salespeople become recognized as thought leaders, and of course, claim a greater role in generating revenue for their firms. 

I was reminded of this recently by a relative who heads North American sales for a business unit at a major U.S.-based global manufacturer. She explained how she and her sales team have embraced CEB’s “Challenger Sale” concept, and with great results. I wasn’t surprised. Since the CEB unleashed the idea onto the world in 2011, I’ve tracked it with admiration. 

The concept, based on CEB research in recent years with more than 5,000 executives, is that B2B buyers prize insights about their business from salespeople. In fact, CEB says, buyers value these insights even more than a fair price, a strong brand, or a good product. CEB refers to such an “aha” moment as commercial insight – an epiphany about why and how the buyer’s company must solve a core problem differently than it has in the past. CEB makes the case, and powerfully, for why B2B salespeople need to become thought leaders.

(Note: Not very persuasively, CEB distinguishes “commercial insight” from “thought leadership,” saying the former “unteaches customers something they are doing” and the latter doesn’t. I presume the CEB authors of the Challenger Sale haven’t read our hallmarks of thought leadership, one of which is novelty – i.e., coming up with a whole new solution. Or perhaps the CEB authors have read our article and are following our tenets of thought leadership; they’re simply trying to come up with a whole new approach to sales and marketing that invalidates all prior approaches, including thought leadership. Very clever, if this was their reasoning. But it doesn’t fool us.)

So while chief marketing officers should be making a dollars-and-cents case for why their company should invest in thought leadership, they should now be developing allies in sales. That will help marketing collect the hard metrics it needs to make the case with the people who approve their budget: the CFO and CEO. 

Indeed, soft metrics such as downloads, social shares, and website viewers are good to have. But you can’t deposit them in the bank. As such, your CFO will likely yawn when you recite them and, when the next downturn hits, slash your budget. Soft benefits don’t survive hard times and hard justifications. And they shouldn’t.

To avoid that scrutiny, marketers should measure the financial return on thought leadership, using factors including customer inquiries and revenue associated with articles or presentations. 

For marketers, this means no longer hiding behind proclamations to bosses that “we’re not responsible for demand generation” or “the return can’t be measured.” Baloney. Often, those are excuses from marketers who are afraid of what the numbers might show.

Marketers who help produce and market truly compelling content should not be afraid of tracking its impact at the point of sale. And if they can help their firm’s salespeople be seen as thought leaders, they are much more likely to get them to share thought leadership’s impact on sales.

And imagine, finally knowing the return on the thought leadership investment, having a discussion in which the CFO talks about increasing the “I” in ROI.


Submitted by Tim Parker on

I think the core message here is right, that salespeople need, more than ever before, insights that help their customers. The world has become a lot more complciated than it used to be, and often the person you're selling to may not know much about the area he's buying for.

There is too a difference between "thought leadership" which is primarily a marketing concept (insights that are published or broadcast) and "commerical insights," those that are specific to a given customer and therefore relevant to a given sales situation -- and there always was a difference; no-one ever advocated meeeting with a prospect and reading them your latest white paper. 

But it's unfortunate that Challenger marketers play up the latter at the expense of the former, claiming inter alia that TL doesn't create leads. That's demonstrable nonsense, as any strategy consulting firm that spends $10Ms/year on thought leadership will tell you.

So I think the overall trend, to insights being more important in the sales process, is undeniable. But their conclusions are rather more strident and uncompromising than is justified by their data. I suppose it's hard to sell books that describe a gradual change -- a lot easier if you can announce a "paradigm shift."

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